Generally speaking, we all know the health concerns associated with fast food and processed food. There’s too much salt, too much sugar, and too much fast. Eat too much of it over the course of several years, and you might develop a chronic illness that could eventually kill you. Or, every so often, you might eat it and get deathly ill the next day.
Fast food safety scares seem to be on the rise lately. Some say this might be the result of social media and a headline-centric media culture — any news flash involving a well-known brand is sure to generate clicks. But the truth is that food health scares have always been around, since the early days of industrialized food processing. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, publicized disgusting practices in the meat packaging industry, published way back in 1906. More recent investigative bestsellers, like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, have continued to created buzz around food safety. Still, the headlines about E.coli outbreaks keep coming, and health scares at chains and large food companies crop up from time to time.
Here are some of the more egregious cases. These are the events and outbreaks that caused the biggest impact, or at least stirred the biggest media discussions. In some cases, the restaurants were at fault — food handling practices were substandard and opened the door to serious health problems. In others, the companies themselves were the victims. This list of health scares includes legitimate outbreaks, as well as hoaxes and scams. But in every case, the nation was put on edge from a perceived health danger at a popular chain.
Let’s start with a most unexpected source of a food health scare: a furniture store. IKEA is known for its affordable, drive-you-crazy-to-put-together furniture. But anyone who has ever been to an IKEA store knows the best thing about shopping there is its authentic Swedish cuisine. By which I mean the meatballs it serves in its cafeterias. In 2013, the company withdrew meatballs from its stores after it discovered horse meat in a batch. This was part of a wider horse meat scandal that year, which began in Ireland and quickly spread to the rest of Europe. The issue hit a number of big names and included a recall by food giant Nestle. Within a month, IKEA was able to return meatballs to its stores.
14. Burger King
Another big name associated with the 2013 European horse meat scandal is Burger King. The burger franchise’s U.K. restaurants stopped using one of its suppliers after patties were found to contain horse meat. The company called the move “voluntary and precautionary measure.” While certain parts of the internet are convinced Burger King knowingly served horse meat to its customers, it remains unclear whether any tainted burgers were ever served. Still, the company took a significant hit on the news. One poll done at the time showed that Burger King’s brand profile fell off a cliff in the U.K. following the controversy.
Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. is known today as a baby food company. The company started as a candy company, though, launching a chewing gum early in the 20th century and undergoing a series of corporate mergers and changes over the decades, starting with a merger with Life Savers in the 1950s. By the 1970s, the firm’s baby food unit was split off and eventually purchased by food giant Nestle – a company also known best for its candy products. This long tradition of candy production may have led Beech-Nut astray. In 1987, the company, which was then the second-largest baby food producer behind Gerber, was fined more than $2 million for selling flavored sugar water as apple juice. The product was marketed to parents as a product for babies – that move took the “nutrition” out of the Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. The scandal led to criminal charges as well, with one Vice President sentenced to a year in jail.
12. YO! Sushi
There’s nothing scarier than gross sushi. That’s why the health report received by YO! Sushi in 2008 was so damaging to the company’s reputation. The chain, known for its conveyor belt-based sushi distribution, has over 90 locations throughout the globe. In 2008, the company was rated as having the worst restaurant hygiene by U.K. newspaper, The Independent. In fact, the health quality of its locations was below the levels required by law. At the time, the company claimed that some of the health codes shouldn’t apply to cold food like sushi — that the food reacted differently to sitting out than hot foods. While it pushed back against the health claims, the company also took steps to improve its health profile. Since then, the chain has continued to expand, opening locations in New Jersey, Florida and New York, in 2015.
As the IKEA case shows, restaurants aren’t the only chains that can be impacted by health scares. Costco was also a source of an outbreak. In 2015, the low-cost warehouse club was identified as the epicenter of a group of E.coli infections. The outbreak caused 19 people to get sick, with reported cases spread out over seven states. Of these, five were hospitalized, with two developing a serious kidney problem. The culprit turned out to be a diced celery and onion blend Costco used to prepare its chicken salad. Costco took the chicken salad off their shelves for a while and federal authorities recalled the celery blend that had been the ultimate source of the infection.
Steakhouse chain Sizzler faced a health scare in Australia in 2006. Fears about food poisoning forced the company to close its salad bars in all 28 of its restaurants in the country. This came after pellets of rat poison were found in two locations. The event drew national attention, with the government of the Australian state of Queensland setting up a hotline to pass information on to the public. It later turned that the health scare was a deliberate act of sabotage. The culprit was eventually identified as a 57-year-old woman suffering from mental problems. The court deemed her mentally unfit for trial. It did have a long term impact, however, with Sizzler installing security equipment on its salad bar. Unfortunately, this was not the only health scare originating at a Sizzler. In an incident in 2000, dozens of people got sick and a child died in an E.coli outbreak in Wisconsin.
Wendy’s is another chain that was once the focus of a deliberate attempt to create a food scare. In 2005, a Las Vegas woman named Anna Ayala claimed that she had been served a severed human finger along with her order of Wendy’s chili. She sued the fast food chain. Meanwhile, an investigation concluded that the finger did not come from a Wendy’s employee or from any employee along the food supply chain. Experts also judged that the finger could not have been cooked with the chili (though it did show signs of being cooked). Within a few weeks, police determined that the finger was part of an attempt by Ayala to extort a settlement from the company. She was eventually convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison. Wendy’s was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case, though the company claimed it lost more than $2.5 million related to lost sales following media coverage of the initial discovery of the finger. Oh, and if you were wondering… the finger belonged to a friend of Ayala’s husband, who had lost it in an accident a few months earlier.
8. Pat & Oscar’s
Pat & Oscar’s was a smaller California-based restaurant chain with less than two dozen locations at its peak. In 2003, an E.coli outbreak was sourced back to salad served at the restaurant. At least 14 people reported getting sick in the outbreak. Four San Diego locations and another near LA were identified as being sources. At the time, it was called the most significant outbreak of E.coli in the region for a decade. The chain was majorly owned by Sizzler (a company that had a bad decade for health scares in the 2000s). In 2011, Pat & Oscar’s filed for bankruptcy, a fate unrelated to the outbreak eight years before. Now there is a single location left open, though it has different owners.
China has been at the center of the global economic story for much of the last quarter century. Much of what we hear about is products that are made in China and imported into the U.S. But there has also been steady growth of U.S. companies moving into the Chinese market. This includes fast food franchises. Unfortunately, the transition to the new market has not always been smooth. There have been a couple of instances in recent years where U.S. companies operating in China have run into serious problems with tainted food.
McDonald’s is a prime example of that. In 2014, the burger giant, which has more than 2,000 locations in China, was forced to pull burgers off its menus. This followed the release of a video showing unsanitary practices at a food supplier used by McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants. The scandal devastated McDonald’s sales in the country and forced a number of changes: more audits of suppliers by the company and a rethinking of safety regulations by government officials.
6. Yum Brands
McDonald’s wasn’t the only American fast food chain hurt by the revelation of bad health practices at a major Chinese food distributor. The impact was widespread in 2014. Companies like Papa John’s, Burger King and Starbucks were also affected. But the company that took the biggest hit in China was Yum Brands. You might not recognize Yum Brands, but you have definitely heard of their portfolio of restaurant chains. They are one of the fast-food powerhouses, owning Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. Their impact from the China scandal was more deeply felt just because they have more brands working. KFC is especially popular in China. There are 4,800 KFC locations in the country (remember: McDonald’s has “just” 2,000). There’s also another 1,600 Pizza Huts. And even though Yum ditched the tainted supplier immediately, its sales in China still suffered double-digit drops. The problem became so persistent that Yum had decided to get rid of its Chinese unit, either selling it or spinning it off as a separate company.
5. Taco Bell
Speaking of Yum Brands, the company has had its share of problems here in the U.S. as well. The firm’s Taco Bell franchise found itself in the middle of a controversy in 2011 when it was reported that the beef it put on its tacos was mostly stuff other than beef. A lawsuit alleged that the seasoned beef was actually only about 35% beef. The company hit back with the claim that, no, in fact, the meat was really 88% beef. The public was not mollified. The company went on to explain that the other ingredients in the meat were things like spices and coloring – pretty much what you’d expect a wet spoonful of seasoned beef product to contain. It’s Taco Bell after all.
Eventually, the controversy died down, but the back-and-forth with critics put the company on the defensive and may have permanently changed public perception of the chain. It’s not necessarily a health scare, at least not compared to E.coli outbreaks or tainted meat affecting sales in thousands of fast food outlets in China. But as a public relations snafu, it made a lot of negative headlines.
4. Taco Bell, Again!
Well, I would say “poor Yum Brands again,” but we should probably feel more sorry for their customers than for the company itself. Unlike the faux controversy that blew up five years later about its not-quite-meat meat, the scare that impacted Taco Bell in 2006 had real health implications. More than 70 people eventually got sick from an E.coli outbreak that was sourced to shredded lettuce that Taco Bell served in restaurants in the northeast part of the US. This had an immediate impact on sales that lasted into the following year, with a double-digit fall in revenue. Sales remained down through 2007.
3. Worcester Sauce
OK, this one isn’t a restaurant or even a chain of stores that sells food. It’s a product, but it’s among the most iconic names in world: Worcester Sauce. The key to a classy burger and the secret ingredient in all manner of recipes, the condiment was the spark of a health scare in 2005 that eventually led to the largest recall in British history. A batch of Worcester was found to contain a cancer-causing industrial dye. Normally, the dye was used in such things as floor polish, but somehow ended up in some chilli powder imported into the U.K. from India. An investigation found that other products might have been affected. Eventually more than 400 products from upwards of 300 manufacturers were pulled from stores, everything from pizzas to sausages.
Of course, this is what we think about when we think about fast food health scares. Part of the company’s brand had been healthy ingredients and a product that was better for you than places like McDonald’s or Taco Bell. In 2015, an outbreak of E.coli attributed to Chipotle caused more than 50 people in nine states to get sick. The company weathered the storm and seemed to get back to normal, though with a damaged reputation. Then in March 2016, there was news that a Boston location had been closed due to a suspicious illness among its employees, suspected to be norovirus. The bad news continued into July, when author Eric Van Lustblader, the current writer of the Jason Bourne novels, Tweeted that his editor got sick after eating at one of Chipotle’s Manhattan restaurants.
1. Jack In The Box
Possibly the most widespread food health scare centered on the fast food chain Jack In The Box. The E.coli outbreak that was eventually sourced to the company’s restaurants broke out in 1993 and affected hundreds of people. Most E.coli infections come from some sort of tainted source materials. Most of the time, the culprit is something like lettuce or celery that has been improperly handled at the processing plant. The 1993 outbreak was different in that it apparently came from undercooking hamburgers.
The company had offered a special promotion on its Monster Burgers – a move that proved more popular than restaurants could handle. In order to keep up with the high traffic they were receiving, many restaurants rushed the cooking process and ended up serving undercooked burgers. The company would later blame some of its meat distributors for the problem, though a subsequent court case seemed to prove that more thoroughly cooking the meat would have prevented the outbreak. In total, the outbreak consisted of 732 confirmed infections spread over a number of Jack In The Box locations. Four of these proved fatal, with nearly another approximately 200 complaining of long-term health problems.